Notes/First Impressions: Orphan Black by Graeme Manson and others

I’ll keep this quick: I adore Orphan Black. It’s full of twists, has an interesting mix of gritty and comedic, presents a convoluted story with a large group of characters in a way that I find easy to follow, and Tatjana Maslany’s acting performance as multiple characters is a delight. When I queue this show up on Netflix, I know I’m not going anywhere the rest of the evening and into the night.

That said, the episode “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” is not going to be my no.1 pick for the Hugos, for two reasons. One, while the show as a whole is great, the individual episodes don’t stand out as much for me. In Doctor Who, each episode has its own tone and identity; I don’t get that from Orphan Black. Two, the show does have some glaring flaws, especially in its plotting. These faults are not so much plot holes (all stories have them, and a lot of the times the best thing to do with those have been to just let them slide rather than try to fill them) as signs that the viewer is being given the runaround. Here, we get that in the bone marrow donation subplot: Seven-year-old Kira donates bone marrow to cure the disease that is going to kill her “aunt” Cosima; the bone marrow gets coopted by her other “aunt” Rachel, and then destroyed to give Kira’s mother Sarah the motivation to shoot a pencil into Rachel’s eye. The whole donation subplot is thus nullified with very little in the way of plot progression to show for it. Oh, and Cosima starts feeling better anyway, for a while at least. One instance of this isn’t deadly to a series, but by the end of season 2, there are already multiple instances of the same phenomenon, and the show has been confirmed for a fourth season already.

Many years ago, I read the Belgian comic XIII. It was very similar in setup to The Bourne Identity and its sequels, indeed so similar to it that many have accused the writer, Jean van Hamme, of plagiarizing it. But it was a setup that worked: Van Hamme knew how to tell a mystery tale, and was a great match to the hyperrealism of the artist, William Vance. Over several albums we learned everything about the background of the man who was found washed up on the shore with a roman numeral XIII tattooed on his collarbone and no memory of his life before that. Except we didn’t. The story that we learned turned out to be a red herring, as did the one that replaced it, and the one after that. I bounced off the series after the seventh book, at which point it was clear the author had no interest in giving us a definite answer as to who XIII was and what happened to him, let alone any kind of closure. At that point at a pace of one or two books a year, the chronology had already begun to strain: ‘XIII’ was at some point identified as a vietnam vet, and six books on he was still quite a young man despite it being 1990-ish now. Thirty years on, spin-offs of the original series are still running. In them, ‘XIII’ is still a youngish man, and characters who were high-ranking officers during the Vietnam war are still active participants in the story. I can see some of this happening with Orphan black easily. The writers have carefully kept the setting generic, but it is clearly 2014, and one of the characters is a seven-year-old child. By season six, we may see that child as a tween, with completely different technology in the setting, and with only a few months of in-story time having passed and no sense of when the font of answers has been exhausted. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen: this show deserves better.